Social media has been flooded with heartfelt tributes to Hawaiian surfer Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani in recent days. The 55-year-old from Waikiki passed away on Saturday after a painful bout with lung cancer. To tens of thousands of surfers he influenced during his mid-1970s heyday, including most who never met him, his passing still feels like losing a childhood friend.
To understand Buttons’ significance to surfing, it’s important to grasp where surfing was when he came of age. In the wake of the late ’60s shortboard revolution—the largest disruption to surfboard design ever—Hawaii became surfing’s undisputed cultural hub. Its vast supply of visiting waves, shapers, and talented surfers made it the perfect place for new ideas to flourish.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, good surf designs didn’t come easy. Identifying the harmonious relationship between a board’s silhouette, rail contour, and bottom curve (essential ingredients we take completely for granted today) was a massive mystery that needed solving. But in Hawaii, new concepts were being designed, crafted, tested, and refined at a rapid clip, putting the Hawaiians out in front in the race to refine shortboards, and redefine surfing.
In 1971, when Kaluhiokalani was 13 years old, fellow Hawaiian Gerry Lopez became the world’s most popular surfer as a result of this idea factory. After outfitting his sleek, Dick Brewer-inspired pocket rocket with Mike Hynson’s down rails with sharp edges, Lopez was suddenly able to toy with Pipeline’s ferocious folds, driving his board in and out of its spinning caverns with delicate grace. The fledgling world of surf media was enamored by Lopez, and followed him everywhere.
And when Pipeline fell dormant each spring, that meant tailing Lopez to Oahu’s South Shore, where he would join a gaggle of innovative “townies” shaping the future of surfing in the smaller, more playful surf (the kind most mortals could relate to).
While the North Shore was all about tubes, Town was all about turns. Larry Bertlemann emerged as the early leader in that department with his high-gravity arcs, and low, spring-loaded stance. But Kaluhiokalani, who was three years younger than Larry, soaked up all of Bertlemann’s elegance and agility … then added a healthy dose of spontaneity, and a shitload of fun. His smile, his hair, his antics, even his name was fun.
Riding Ben Aipa’s renowned “stinger” design, Buttons Kaluhiokalani brought “mind surfing” to the fore. His switchfoot carves, sliding 360s, and roundhouse cutbacks set new bars for both performance and style, leading us into the future we’re all living in now. All the while, he extended the figure-eight fundamentals by mixing in bigger bottom turns, radical redirects, and assaults on the lip. Whether they know it or not, today’s surfing acrobats have direct lines back to Kaluhiokalani, but it’s unlikely that this proud Hawaiian’s regal, athletic aesthetic will ever be matched.
When he appeared in classic ’70s surf flicks such as “Playgrounds in Paradise,” “Fantasea,” and “Free Ride,” Buttons stole the show, both with his surfing and his playful, fun-loving charisma that set him apart. Lopez evolved into the quiet guru. Bertlemann grew serious, and overtly sponsored. Buttons, meanwhile, was forever the class clown around town, and remained a lifelong grommet that radiated fun, defined cool, and above all else, bled Hawaii’s aloha spirit. And if he happened to look like a lovable misfit, it’s because he was. That was a big part of his allure.
If you surfed in the ’70s, Hawaiians were your heroes. Period. Every one of us wanted to get tubed like Gerry, and carve like Larry. That said, given a choice, when asked who we wanted to be, for a lot of us, Buttons Kaluhiokalani was the answer. That’s why he’ll be so missed.
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